Wednesday, February 28, 2018

It's okay to not be special

I think we all want to be special.  When we are very young, we often have the experience of being praised for about everything we do.  I was an only child, so I think I had more of this than children with siblings, but even with multiple children, there is often a lot of praise, every time we do something new. 

Of course, as children, this encourages us to keep learning, to keep trying and to not give up when it gets hard.  But I also think that sometimes we come to expect that praise, and we never develop the ability to be okay with not being in the spotlight.

There is a lot of talk about parenting and how we raise children.  Many people take very strong stances on things like participation trophies.  Personally, I'm not a fan.  I think that there is something really special about celebrating success, and when we take that away from children, we aren't doing them justice at all. 

Of course, there is a time and place for things like participation trophies.  When you have a whole group who has really struggled to even participate, then a trophy (or certificate...I remember participation certificates) is appropriate.  And there is lots of room for both "everybody win's" activities, where things like participation trophies are fun alongside more traditional competitions where we recognize hard work and excellence.

Life isn't fair.  There will always be times in life where you won't get the same rewards as everybody else.  There will be times in life where you may have done a better job, but still someone else gets the reward and recognition.  There will be times where a completely arbitrary factor will determine who wins and who looses.  I think it is a very important life skill to teach our children. 

This is something that we can introduce in small pieces, so they naturally grow to understand it.  When they are very little, and don't understand, we praise them for everything.  But as they grow up, we start to focus our praise in the places where they really did shine.  This often can encourage them to work harder!

But I see the 'special snowflake' syndrome a lot in adults too.  There are so many ways in which we label ourselves, and there is this trend in Paganism to want to be evolved, or significant or special.  And the work we do, in our spiritual life, can be hard and it can be deceptively unassuming.  Sometimes the things that take the most work don't seem that hard or special from the outside.  But we know, deep inside we know what we have worked on and what we have accomplished.

One of the first places I saw this issue cropping up was with Indigo children.  When I first heard about Indigo children, it seemed like everyone either claimed to be one, or they claimed their kids were.  Every couple of years, a new 'special' category comes up, and it feels like everyone comes pouring out of the woodwork, and they all are whatever the newest thing is.

But, I feel this sets a really bad precedent, because whenever you have a description of something, there are people that fit the description, and people who don't.  And these 'special' designations always are portrayed as being better than other people in some way.  Which means that if you don't fit, you are somehow less. 

In the spiritual world, I have seen a ton of different ways of classifying just how spiritual you are.  There are dozens of different categorizations for how evolved your higher self is, and some of them use completely random methods of determining who is and isn't in a particular category.

When you peek beneath the surface of a lot of these 'special' types of people, it's very much about proving how much better you are than other people, and most of the time it's not because you have done things to improve yourself, but just through some random feature or luck. 

I refuse to believe that people who menstruate during the full moon each month are more spiritually evolved than other women (and by extension all men...who don't menstruate).  Having longer hair doesn't make you more powerful spiritually or energetically (trust me....I've chopped my hair off many times, and have never crippled myself *snort).  Being left handed doesn't make you more or less evolved.  I have heard all of these things and more!

I also think that we have become so dependent on our words an labels to proclaim to the world how special we are, that we feel like we have to be all the special things.  When I was first learning, it was a common statement that "all witches are Priest or Priestess," meaning that we each held our own spirituality in our own hands, we didn't need someone else to step in and talk to the Gods on our behalf.  But there were also degrees of initiation, and each of these represented a body of work and skills that were developed.

But now, I hear people who have just started declare themselves, "High Moon-Mermaid Priestess, Chosen of Gaia," or some other kind of crazy title, with no actual meaning to it.  And when you see one person state they are a Ocean Priestess, immediately like five others jump right in, "Oh, I like water too, I must be an Ocean Priestess as well!"

I'm not saying that specifications can't exist.  I know that there are many temples, circles and other organizations as well as solitary paths that have levels, degrees and dedications, where you become focused in one area and thus earn a title related to it.  But I think that so many people think that if they like a thing, they are somehow chosen by it.  Sometimes, you just like a thing!

I'm not saying you shouldn't be special.  By all means, celebrate the things you are well and truly good at!  Wear the titles you have earned with pride, and don't be ashamed of claiming those skills you have worked hard to master.  But on the flip side, let other people have their moment in the spotlight as well.  We don't all need to be the center of attention at all times.  Sometimes it is okay to just be okay at things.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Constant Vigilance

Fair warning:  today's blog will be a bit more rambly than usual!

I have an obsessive mind.  I ruminate on things, long after they should be well and done, and I get caught up in anxiety loops.  At any given time, my mind is probably either hashing over something that has happened in the past, something I feel I did wrong or how someone reacted to something I do, or I am worrying about the future, about the horrible things to come (because of course it wouldn't be anxiety inducing if I thought about the good things).

My mind naturally goes to the darker places.  It's funny though, I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a pessimist.  I actually most of the times really expect things to turn out well....I just fret and fuss in my head about the million 'what if???' possibilities.  The good ones I skim over, because however wonderful they would be, they don't require preparation.  The bad ones, those are the killers.  Those are the thoughts that bang around in my head long after they should be gone, and create problems.

There is a quote, in a Laurell K. Hamilton novel that always reminds me of this.  It's kind of long, and not completely related, but in essence, it is a conversation between two psychics, both people who can 'feed' off of other people's memories and emotions.  And the question one poses to the other is:  do you ever get tempted to take more than you should.  The other person responds that being tempted isn't really the issue or heart of it.  That of course everyone is tempted to do those naughty things that they know they shouldn't do.  Even if you aren't truly considering it, even if it's just that random thought that flies through your head and is immediately discarded, the possibility has entered your head, and it can make you wonder if you are a good person or not.

But the response, that the other character gives is this:  it's not about being tempted, it's about making the decision, every second of every day, to do the right thing.  To make the choice to be the good guy, and to not fall prey to those thoughts that are floating about in your head.

This distinction, between being tempted and making the decision to always choose to do the right thing, is one that I think applies to a ton of areas in our lives.  Of course, it easily applies to ethics and morality.  I have said, many times before, and will probably say many more times, that I don't hold magic to different standards of right and wrong than I do any other part of my life. 

But right and wrong can be full of grey areas and tricky situations.  Most people agree that stealing is wrong, but if you or your family are starving, most people would probably steal to stay alive, especially if they can steal from someone else's bounty (and not from another starving person).  On the flip side, if two people are trying for the same job, most people don't feel it wrong to promote themselves or talk themselves up.  Many people would consider it less right to talk down their opponent, even if the things you are saying are accurate and true.

Being a good person and acting morally is constant work.  We must keep our eyes open, and always check in with our actions.  It is very easy to be motivated by what we are feeling in the moment or by our past experiences.  We may not always have the luxury of stopping and taking the time to consider what we are doing and why, but when we do have the time and ability, we should!  And, when we notice that we may have taken an action that wasn't on the side of right, we owe it to ourselves to consider how we might correct our mistake.

This might mean making a proper apology or some kind of restitution to the wronged party.  It can be really easy to think that little things like this aren't important, but simply admitting you are wrong, can be a very powerful act.  It can mean a lot, both to yourself and to the other people involved.  You never know how the simplest thing can completely change another person's life.  I am constantly reading feel-good stories about this kind of thing, either a kind word or a small gesture, that dramatically alters someone's day, sometimes turning into a ripple effect that changes their entire life!

But it might also mean adjusting your attitude for the future.  We may not be able to go back and make things right, especially if it was a chance encounter with a stranger.  What we can do, is change how we will act if a similar situation were to occur.  The more we think about how to behave, and how to respond to different situations, the more likely we are to follow our intentions and act in a way that aligns with our inner truth.

So how does all this cycle back around to my obsessive thoughts?  Firstly, let me tell you, from experience, that having someone else say a kind word, express their appreciation of a thing I have done, or even apologize for something they did (no matter how minor) can help break my cycle of obsessive thoughts.  Instead of being caught up in this loop of continually asking myself what I might have done differently, or what I could have done better, now I have this outside input that tells me that what I did was okay. 

In a more direct way though, the approach of being continually vigilant about how we respond to things can help combat obsessive thoughts and derail the viscous cycle before it truly begins.  When we focus on what we might do better, instead of how we messed up, we are turning that negative thought into a positive one, and better still we are putting our focus on the outcome, on the positive things that we can turn any situation into.

This type of vigilance is a habit that can be built up just like any other habit.  The more we practice taking even half a second to think about what we are doing, and to deliberately make the best choice we can, instead of reacting without thought, the more this becomes our default action.  Instead of simply taking action, we will find ourselves automatically thinking, "What does this mean to me?" or "What are the ramifications of this choice?"  Even when we are faced with bad options, we will feel better about our choice because it was a deliberate choice, not just our way of grasping at straws and taking whatever is thrust at us.

And if you are like me, if your thoughts spiral around and cause you problems, perhaps you will find that taking notice of your obsessive thoughts as soon as they begin allows you to direct them better.  Instead of them swirling all around you, trying to drown you, perhaps you will be able to send them in a better direction, or at least slow them down enough that you can keep your head above the water.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Loving yourself through change

There is a lot of conflicting emotions running wild at this point in the year.  We feel the pull of the brand new year, the need to make big goals and to set our sights on change and growth.  Spring has come, calling us to break free from our shell, to stretch and challenge ourselves.  And now, Valentines day has come!

Valentines day is hard for a lot of people.  Whether you are in a relationship or not, it the day of the year when focus is most on how lovable we are.  We often find ourselves questioning our own self-worth, especially in the light of the recent focus on changing the things we don't like about ourselves.  If we have a partner, we may feel insecure and wonder what they see in us.  If we don't perhaps we worry that we are unlovable and fear no one will want us. 

This is reinforced by the pure amount of media pressure to constantly improve, to want to be perfect and to need to cover up any and all faults "So that someone will love you."  And yet, many of us do a lot of inner work.  We focus on learning to love ourselves, to accept the parts of our being that we may wish were different, and to be happy where we are...and who we are.

So how do you reconcile those two sides?  The part of you that wants to grow and improve and the part that wants to love yourself, as you are, flaws and all?  Can you truly love parts you find undesirable?  And is it somehow a betrayal to yourself to want to change and to let go of the parts of yourself that aren't exactly as you want them?

It may sound bizarre, but I recently read an article about this very topic, specifically in regards to weight.  It brought to light the juxtaposition that many people feel, and I think especially women.  We are told that to be mentally healthy and happy, we need to learn to love ourselves, where we are at today, and not not put our sense of self-worth or acceptance on some desired weight or aesthetic.  And yet, at the same time, we are told that in order to be physically healthy we need to meet a certain level of weight and fitness (and media tells us that if we aren't skinny, we can't be beautiful).

Part of setting a goal to change often involves recognizing a dissatisfaction with the current state.  Most of the time, when I want to change and grow, it's because there is a part of my life that I don't like or that I think could be better.  Of course, sometimes I am driven by seeing something wonderful that I want to have (or be!), but I think that I am motivated more by my dislike of things than by my desires.

It is a very fine distinction, to be able to love yourself, to be happy with where you are...and still want to change things you might not like or grow and become more.  I think the common misconception is that you have to completely love all aspects of a thing to love it as a whole...and I think that is so untrue!

Think about a young kitten.  When a kitten is young, it hasn't yet learned how to do certain things:  use a litter-box, not scratch up the furniture, that people don't have fur and are fragile to little teeth and claws.  But we love the kitten!  In fact, it is that very love that often makes us more patient and more gentle when we teach the kitten all the things we want it to learn.  We show it the litter-box over and over, so it knows where it is and what to do with it.  We take away things we don't want it to chew on or play with and replace those with toys or treats.

We need to learn to treat ourselves with that same kind of consideration!  We can love ourselves, truly love ourselves, and still want to correct bad habits or things that we may not care for.  This type of change in perspective doesn't hold us back from changing, in fact you may find that it is easier to grow and change when you are approaching change from a perspective of love instead of hate.

We are often kinder to others than we are to ourselves, and when we remember this, we can use it to our advantage.  If you struggle finding things about yourself that are lovable, try describing yourself as if you were someone else...literally pretend that you were someone else, specifically someone you care about.  If they were having a bad day, what might you tell them to make them feel better?  What could you say to show how much you cared about them?  If you aren't used to thinking about yourself in positive ways, this might be very hard at first.  Start small!  Pick one thing about yourself for each category (body, mind and soul), and give yourself a single compliment. 

You may find, at first, that you really struggle with this.  Remember, every time you do this, you are building up your capacity for self-love.  Even small things, like telling yourself you love the color of your eyes or how you are really good at math or that you can remain calm when other people get angry, these are all tiny love notes to your soul.

As you get better at finding things you like about yourself, start to challenge yourself.  Each time you do this exercise, add one more compliment to each category!  Try to find things to love about the parts of yourself that you are unhappy with.  Even kind of odd compliments are fine!  For example, I may not like my belly area, or the stretch marks that live there...but they remind me of being pregnant with my son, which I am proud of, and they kind of look interesting (when I look at them up close and you can't really see what they are, just the shapes and textures).

This leads me to my next exercise:  finding ways to turn negatives into positives.  This is a bit more tricky than the first one, but definitely rewarding!  The idea is to find things that you don't like, and find some aspect of it that you can re-frame as a positive.  This works especially well for things you may not have any option of changing (like your  height or age).  I may not like getting older, but I definitely appreciate being in a more stable place in my life.

But, you can also use this technique for things that you dislike and are wanting to change.  With things you are wanting to change, your positive might be something more elusive, like how your current state motivates you towards that very change you want to have.  I don't like how sedentary I am, or how it makes my body feel when I am not active enough.  But I love how my body responds to exercise, how it literally yells at me when I don't do enough, and how doing physical things (even simple stuff like a few core exercises) can make me feel better.

And I think this definitely helps shift your mental outlook from a "this OR that" to a "both" standpoint when it comes to contemplating loving yourself as you are and wanting to change.  When we start to see ourselves as both positive and negative, as a complex and amazing person, we can find love and joy in the moment and still desire growth and change.  We can set our eyes on where we want to be without judging who we are now.  Everything we are, right now, in this moment, has brought us to the start of our journey forward, and it will become part of our transformation.  We can be tender and kind with ourselves, we can embrace our faults as if they were necessary, because in a way they are.  We wouldn't be complete without all of our rough spots and all of the places we shine.

So, start looking at yourself with new eyes!  Don't judge harshly because it's you, but practice being loving and being kind and find those things that are nifty and special about yourself!  Know, really know, that you can be flawed and perfect at the same time, because you are!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Nurturing new projects

At the start of the year, we are often drawn to new, big projects!  As spring rolls around, another surge of energy hits, as the world is waking and starting to grow, we are also called to grow and change.  Getting the energy to actually start a new project, figuring out the details and getting the gears moving takes a lot of work.  We spend a lot of time preparing to start new projects, and thinking about them in the long-term:  how we will handle problems, how we will stick with them, and what will happen at the end.  But what often gets overlooked is that fresh, tender beginning.

Much like seedlings and babies, our new projects need special care.  We may need to be more attentive to them, create nurturing environments or get help.  It is very easy, at this stage, to completely kill (or at least put into a long dormancy) a project, by not giving it proper care at this crucial stage.

Thinking back to the idea of new year's resolutions, a lot of people like to hit the ground running when they start a new project.  They burst in with all this energy and enthusiasm, and work furiously. And sometimes this is a great approach.  It really builds some good momentum and you can ride that wave to continue moving forward.

But not all projects are the same, and sometimes, this full frontal assault can have the opposite result.  Instead of building momentum, you crash and burn.  I think this is especially true when it comes to diet and exercise.  It is very easy to set these really huge goals, to get a little crazy with them, and then to fail utterly because it is not a pace that we can maintain in the long term (not without proper conditioning).  And so, all your work has the opposite effect of what was intended.  You push too hard and end up hurting yourself (or starving yourself..which is also hurting yourself), and find it virtually impossible to continue at your current pace.

Not only do you get set back, but you build this expectation in your head, that "this is what happens when I work on my goal."  Logically, you may know this isn't true, but your subconscious keeps throwing it back in your face.  Every time you go to work on your goal, even at a slower and more reasonable pace, you are reminded of what happened when you failed, and you start to self-sabotage.  While it is definitely possible to course correct, it can be a long, uphill battle to remove those blocks.

Another place in which new projects need special consideration is their environment.  Kind of like some seedlings need to be started inside while others need a good hard frost in order to grow properly.  Your new project might need to be something you don't share with other people.  This is very common, magically.  In fact, quite a lot of traditions suggest keeping silent about your work until it has come to pass.  While there are many practical reasons for this silence, one thing that it does is it keeps you from hearing any doubts or worries from other people, even if they have only your best intentions in mind!

It is very easy, when you hear about someone's new interest, to want to remove the obstacles that might pop up for them.  Often, this means we talk about all the things that might go wrong.  While our ultimate goal is to help them overcome or bypass these things, if you tell a bunch of people about your project and keep hearing the same warnings, over and over, they start to weigh heavier on you.  Things you may have already considered, figured out a plan for, or dismissed, might now start to haunt you.  You may find yourself second-guessing your ideas, and creating problems where there were none.

On the other hand, you may be inclined to keep your new project to yourself, out of fear.  You may worry about what other people will think, or if they will support you.  These fears may start to grow and multiply, simply because you don't have the support you need!  You may find that you need people to cheer you on, to bounce your ideas off of and who will help you brainstorm solutions when you are coming up dry. 

It seems like these two sides of the coin are contradictory, and in their extremes they are.  But since every project and every person is different, it is up to you to determine what type of environment each of your projects requires.  Some projects you may want to keep to yourself until they are much further along, while other projects you may want to announce right away, so that everyone can add their energy in to yours and help lift it off the ground.  I find that most fall somewhere in-between. 

Most of the projects I work on, whether they are big ones like my "Year of..." projects, or small ones like my weekly goals, get shared with select groups of people.  Not only do I not share all my projects with everyone I know, different types of projects will get shared with different groups of people.  I have writer friends, gamer friends, Pagan friends, women's spirituality friends, and of course family.  I have lots of different types of people that I interact with!  Based on what the project I am working on involves, I may announce it to any or all of these groups.  Typically, I announce projects to only groups that share an interest, so I don't typically share my gaming goals with my (non-gaming) Pagan friends.

But I also share my projects at different points in their development.  I make a lot of plans, and I start a lot of projects.  I have quite a lot of interests, and I know that I have the tendency to start things that I may or may not finish.  I also know that the more people I share things with, the more motivated I am to actually follow through on them.  If lots of people know about a goal or project, I feel almost obligated to finish it (on time, if there is a time frame involved).

This can be a two-edged sword for me.  I absolutely use this to my advantage, and when I know that, deep down, I really want to do a thing, I will work up the courage and start telling everyone about it.  I know some very supportive people, who will give me encouragement on anything I do.  I also know some very pushy people, who tend to prod me to step out of my comfort zone, to do things that I normally wouldn't...which can be very good on some of these more uncomfortable projects.  The downside is that, knowing I will feel compelled to work on a project (and will feel back if I fail to complete it), I may hesitate to announce it, and therefor not get the help I need to bring it to completion.

The amount of attention new projects need can also be challenging.  If you think about different types of babies, human babies require quite a lot of attention, while some animal species have babies that are quite self-sufficient only hours after their birth.  I think this is one thing I often don't think about, when I am planning new projects:  how much attention they will need at the start.

And it's not just a reflection of how much work the actual project will entail, rather, it's an indication of how much work it will take you to do the work of the project.  For example, if your new project is to meditate for an hour a day, that pretty much takes one hour a day.  It doesn't require a lot of attention beyond that.  There isn't a lot of preparation or after-care that you need to do.  If, your new project is to go to the gym for an hour a day, that project will require more attention.  You still have the hour commitment, but now you also have driving time involved.  And, you may need to spend time working out a good schedule, so that your gym time works with the rest of your commitments (and the gym hours).  And finally, you will probably want to shower afterwards, so that is one more thing to take into account...and plan for. 

Now, both of these things don't actually require a lot of attention throughout the rest of your day.  I don't tend to spend a lot of time thinking about an upcoming workout or meditation.  But sometimes your projects have unexpected preparations that come in the form of mental attention as well as preparation.  Take my Year of Magic.  I am quickly learning that this requires a LOT more planning and attention than I had thought it would.

Two years ago, I did a Year of Moons, where I wrote about the moon phases all year long.  That means, coming up with something to write about that particular moon and phase every 3-5 days.  I thought this prepared me for a Year of Magic, after all, I'm already doing magic throughout the year, so it can't be that much more, can it?

But, I forgot that I am a discovery writer.  Which means that I barely plan out what I am going to write, and mostly write off the top of my head.  Before my Year of Moons, I had done my homework.  I had looked up (and made basic notes) on each of the full moons throughout the year, and of course about each of the moon phases.  So each new one, it was simply a matter of looking at my notes, picking the theme (from the full moon, like family or gratitude) and seeing how it related to the type of energy (from the moon phase, such as facing challenges or releasing).  With those two basic prompts, I could easily write the rest of my thoughts out.

What I didn't consider, with a Year of Magic, is that I would have to plan and think about a lot of my activities, as I went.  So even knowing that I wanted to work on feeding my hungers this moon cycle, and knowing that Imbolc was coming up, I still had to sit down, plan my actions for the day (and look at the upcoming days, to make sure everything got done in time).  On top of this, I found myself thinking about my plans throughout the day.  I had to keep coming back to my project, to my plans, to my ideas, so that I could actually work on them when the time came.  Without all this thought and attention, I wouldn't be prepared when the Sabbat rolled around, or when it was time to set goals or reflect back on what had already happened.

New projects can be exciting, and it is really fun when we start to see the changes happening.  But we need to stay mindful of the health of our new project!  Tend to it, like we would a newborn.  Watch it's vital signs, to see if we need to adjust our actions to better suit it's needs.  The more we tune into this state of a project's growth, the easier the rest of the project will go!